In a surprising departure, vipassana meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg shifts from the measured and philosophic stance of her first two books to take on a more personal and wondering voice in her latest book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (Riverhead Books, 2002). As in Lovingkindness and A Heart as Wide as the World, Salzberg articulates the dharma with grace and clarity, but in this book her own faith journey offers the structure for her revelations.
As the subtitle of the book Faith suggests, Salzberg probes into her deepest experiences—a painful childhood and the ups and downs of her own journey—where she both questioned and found inspiration in her practice with Indian, Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Her courage to examine a passage through despair into deepened faith allows Salzberg to inspire readers navigating through their own times of suffering and loss of faith. The stories and musings are recounted with warmth and humor, with love for the dharma and for life. Inquiring Mind interviewed Salzberg in May 2002.
Inquiring Mind: In the beginning of your new book, Faith, you differentiate between faith and belief. You make it clear that faith as you are discussing it doesn’t involve belief in a deity. How did your understanding of faith open up in this way?
Sharon Salzberg: We usually think of faith as “faith in.” It’s connected to a certain ideology, a deity or conceptual overlay, often rigidly held. I remember many years ago the first time I ever led a workshop about faith. I spoke all morning, and the participants responded in stony silence. When we reconvened after lunch, a guy sitting right in front burst out, “I came to Buddhism to get away from all this shit!” Once he broke the silence, many others began to speak. Painful associations with the word faith came pouring out along with stories of past experiences. Many felt that they had been forced at a young age to believe things that couldn’t be proven, and that any questioning was held in judgment. Some talked of old fears, that if they didn’t have “enough faith,” they would be condemned, maybe forevermore. As I listened to these stories, I realized that we really needed to reclaim the word faith. That was one of my motivations in writing the book: to try to help redeem the word.
Often we see faith as dogma or doctrine rather than as a capacity of the heart. Or we think of faith cynically as something stupid which requires us to surrender intelligence. In fact, we might think that by its very nature, faith means we cannot question or inquire. There are so many ways that the word faith is misused to evoke images of submission or fanaticism—and these days, even hatred.
What I want to do is create a sense of faith based in the teachings of the Buddha that is different from all those other ways of misusing the word. I explore faith as a liberating quality that doesn’t demand we give up love and respect for ourselves. Nor does it demand that we separate from others or feel ourselves to be the exclusive holders of the truth. As a quality of the heart, faith doesn’t exclude others; it’s really about connection.
IM: Wonderful. And I love the energetic quality of the faith you describe. It’s a verb: to faith.
SS: In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, the word usually translated as faith is a verb. Saddhā literally means “to place the heart upon.” It’s a movement of participation, to offer one’s heart, to give over one’s heart. It means coming forward, as if we are landing in the center of spiritual life, which is where we should be. We’re not on the sidelines feeling left out, hearing a spiritual teaching and thinking that it is relevant to other people but not to us, or that we’re not qualified or capable of encompassing it. Saddhā suggests that we step into the unknown. Recognizing that we can’t control the world, we still are able to go forward.
IM: You say that in Buddhism suffering is a proximate cause of faith. What does that mean?
SS: Proximate cause means the most likely springboard for something else to arise; it’s not necessarily the sole condition but rather the likeliest condition. For example, the proximate cause of metta (lovingkindness) is seeing the good in someone, or remembering that all beings want to be happy. With those conditions, it’s easier for lovingkindness to spring forth.
So in the teachings of the Buddha, the proximate cause of faith is suffering. This was another motivating factor for me to write the book. I thought, how strange it is that everybody suffers but not everybody, by any means, emerges with faith. Many people emerge from suffering with a great deal of bitterness, anger and self-pity, feeling more alone than ever. But other people do emerge from suffering with incredible good-heartedness and love, with compassion and faith.
I wanted to understand what happens for some people, in the midst of suffering, allowing that suffering to serve as the proximate cause of faith. That became a powerful quandary for me in my teaching, in my writing and in my own life. As I began to explore this quandary, it became clear to me that the opposite of faith is despair rather than doubt. If faith is the force that connects us—connects us to others, connects us with ourselves, connects us to the strength to move forward into the unknown—then despair is the state where that sense of connection has withered, where faith is lost, where we feel utterly and completely cast adrift and alone.
I don’t know that despair is essential and inevitable on the path of deepening faith, but I know it can have a crucial role. I have had lots of conversations with people who do believe that there’s a proverbial “dark night of the soul” that everyone has to go through on the spiritual journey. But whether it’s necessary or not, or inevitable or not, this time of despair is not infrequent. I do think that what is necessary—and sometimes served by a complete collapse of faith—is a huge letting go. We come face to face with our normal habits of mind—habits based on denial, grasping and fear. In this face-to-face encounter, there’s a lot of pain. But if we are able to let go of those old habits, we find a new freedom and learn what’s really important in our lives.
IM: In your book, the stories from your own life and from the life of your teacher Dipa-ma offer insight into the movement through despair into a deeper faith.
SS: Dipa-ma had come to practice after a huge amount of suffering. Over the course of ten years, two of her three children died, one at birth, one after a few months of life. Her husband came home from work one day not feeling well, and he died very suddenly. She went into a state of extreme grief where she was unable to get out of bed, she couldn’t eat, and she couldn’t care for her surviving child. She was living in Burma at the time because her husband had been in the Indian civil service there. The Burmese doctor who came to see her told her that she might actually die of a broken heart if she didn’t do something about her state of mind. He advised, “Go learn how to meditate.” So she did.
When she went to the meditation center the first time, she was so weak she had to actually crawl up the temple stairs. Her practice enabled her to put the pieces of her life experience together in a way that her pain, instead of making her feel so completely alone and isolated, opened her to intense compassion and faith. She found a power to love that wouldn’t diminish no matter what happened or whom she encountered. That love was based on the knowledge of the fragility of life, that life can change on a dime, that we live in a molten, volcanic universe where everything changes all the time. It’s not that there’s only suffering in this world, by any means, but the unsteadiness of things is a great truth. So we can join with one another in care and love rather than feel separate and apart. Rather than being destroyed by her enormous heartache, she moved through it, coming to a greater faith, faith in herself, faith in the power of love, faith in the power of life itself.
That was my experience as well. Dipa-ma was a model for me when I was sitting a retreat in Australia with Sayadaw U Pandita, and the very painful memory came back to me of my mother’s death when I was quite young. I felt myself really lose my moorings. Almost twenty years after I had first begun meditating, I found myself trying to use the techniques of meditation in a very utilitarian and harsh way: “I’m mindful of the pain; why the hell is it still here?”
It was only when I began to open my heart and mind big enough to take in the suffering, to open to a sense of much greater connection, that I came to a place of compassion. A quotation I use from Rilke expresses it very well: “So you must not be frightened. If a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen, if restiveness like light and cloud shadows passes over your hands and over all you do, you must think that life has not forgotten you.” What happened for me was a glimpse into that inclusive nature of life, the fact that I hadn’t been forgotten or abandoned by life itself. I felt held in the generous embrace of faith.
IM: Do you think that having a model such as Dipa-ma is essential in moving from great heartache into faith? What about somebody who doesn’t have models? Are they slated to be caught in the despair?
SS: In recovering faith, we are very, very lucky to have living, breathing models, or recently living, anyway, in the case of Dipa-ma. I think of the Dalai Lama. One time several years ago when I heard him speak in Central Park, he listed the many hardships he has undergone, the devastation he has witnessed in his homeland and among his people; then, with this big smile, he said, “But I’m pretty happy.” He explained that happiness was based in the force of compassion. It wasn’t that the troubles weren’t real or were masked over, but that compassion is such a unifying force that it allows us to feel at one with the boundlessness of life. So it gives us strength.
But many people who lose their moorings, who fall into despair and are unable to access their faith, don’t necessarily have models like Dipa-ma or the Dalai Lama. And it’s certainly not easy to reforge threads of connection when we feel that they’ve been severed. Yet, in answer to your question, I really believe it’s possible—even without such models—to come into a deeper faith. I think it’s harder, but life itself can be a model. Nature is a model.
IM: You talk about your own revelation of deepened faith on that retreat with U Pandita when you walked through a field of yellow wildflowers. Are you saying it’s possible that somebody who doesn’t have a spiritual teacher might simply have that field as a model?
SS: Yes. In a glimpse of connection to a golden burst of wildflowers, I do think a person might begin to rekindle faith. Remember, we don’t have to find total faith; we can find just a little bit of faith, and step by step we can reweave a sense of connection. We might just have one person, not a great, inspiring model, but just somebody whose care we can let in, that we can connect to. The recovery of faith can be incremental in this way.
Sometimes we need to strip away the layers to see that pain—whether it’s physical or mental—is not one solid, monolithic entity. We tend to see pain as one giant clump, inert, oppressive, weighing down on us. But if we can look at the different elements of the pain, we might still experience them as uncomfortable but begin to see them as part of an alive system. When we are mindful of exactly what is happening, we see movement. Once we see change, then we see life, and a whole different perspective opens up allowing that resurgence of faith.
A friend of mine who’s a musicologist says, “In music we would call that taking apart the chord.” There’s a way in which we need to take apart the chord of physical pain so that it’s not so massive, and we need to take apart the chord of emotional pain or depression, because it’s not just one thing. There are many strands. One of the meanings of saddhā is hospitality. Faith is about opening up and making room for even the most painful experiences, the ones we find when we take apart the chord of our suffering: fear, horror, desolation. Maybe this is how suffering can sometimes lead to faith. At a time of great suffering when there’s nothing else to rely on and nowhere to go, the return to the moment is an act of faith. Openness to possibility can arise.
I’d like to add that when some people take apart the chord of their despair, they find a biochemical component, and that has to be addressed as a real medical issue. Perhaps only then will there be enough space for the glimmer of faith to emerge.
IM: A stance of openness and inquiry is intrinsic to the faith you explore. It’s refreshing to consider faith in this way, so different from the blind acceptance we often mistake for faith. In fact, the way you talk about faith it seems to include the Great Doubt described in Zen teachings. Questioning is essential to this movement of participation, to this stepping into the unknown.
SS: In the Theravada system, the first step in developing faith is bright faith, which is really being inspired and uplifted. Bright faith is like falling in love with the dharma or with a sense of possibility. You fall in love with the vision of life that a teacher presents to you. You fall in love with a sacred place and the joy of being there. It’s very intoxicating. Bright faith may only be a beginning, but it’s a necessary beginning.
But to develop beyond that first intoxication, what we need is doubt. We need wondering, questioning, investigating, testing. For example, while we get an intoxicating feeling being close to a teacher, we still are encouraged to question what that teacher says. We need to question and, most of all, we need to put everything into practice, which is in itself a kind of doubting. It’s a way of investigating for ourselves what is true. Through this investigation, we move from bright faith to the next stage, which is verified faith.
Of course, there are many ways of doubting. That kind of doubt which verifies faith is a positive doubt; it’s what the Buddha encouraged in the ever-so-famous Kalama Sutta: “Don’t believe anything just because I say it; put it into practice and see for yourself if it’s true.”
But there’s another kind of doubt, a more disingenuous kind of doubt. In the suttas this is described as skeptical doubt. It’s really a state of cynicism where we don’t even try to let something speak to us, where we don’t allow ourselves to see what it might reveal. Skeptical doubt is largely based in fear.
The kind of doubt that allows us to question and get close to something is based in a sense that we have both the right and the capacity to know the truth for ourselves. But if we don’t really believe we have that capacity, then we stand apart from the process and look at it as though we were superior. It’s a little bit like a child who when she doesn’t get what she wants or is too afraid to try to get what she wants, says, “I didn’t want that anyway!”
IM: In the last section of your book you talk about unwavering or abiding faith. Please say a few words about this deepest level of faith.
SS: When one of my teachers, the Tibetan lama Khenpo, died, I was forced to have faith in my Buddhanature rather than relying on his. This is abiding faith. It’s very hard to remember, to believe, that we don’t need the presence of a revered teacher for qualities of compassion or wisdom to be alive in us. But when we’re with a great teacher, the faith we tap into is not really about them; it’s about us. When we look at the Buddha, it’s not really about him, it’s about us. Ultimately it’s about oneself. Not oneself in the personal, egotistical way, but like the Buddha reaching down to touch the Earth on the eve of his enlightenment, unwavering faith knows to call upon the trustworthy Earth of our own nature.
IM: Faith feels like a real departure from your other books. In this book, the central drama is your own personal journey, your own steps in finding faith, in losing faith, in deepening faith. What led you to write such a personal book?
SS: At some point, I didn’t really have a choice. I felt compelled to do it. I had been writing for a very long time, and what was coming out was dry and theoretical. It was only as I kept sinking more deeply into my own personal faith journey that the book came to life.
From the start, the very organization of this book on faith posed difficulties for me. I couldn’t heavily rely on an unfolding structure within the Buddhist teachings as I had in my book Lovingkindness. In contrast to the traditional, carefully mapped-out practices on lovingkindness, where you begin by sending lovingkindness to yourself, then to the benefactor, and on to all beings, with faith, there’s the movement from bright faith to verified faith to unwavering faith, but there’s little more than that. So I had to create an architecture of faith. The only way of doing that was through my own experiences.